I remember the first Hunter’s Moon and how it washed us all in blood. I remember seeing it hang in the sky like a dark red jewel pinned to a rich man’s throat. It stained everything red. We had never seen anything quite like it before. I was younger than you are now, and all I remember is that my mother pulled me to her skirt and ushered me towards the church. There were people crying witchery, and priests trying to calm us all as they pushed rocks against the doors to make certain they stayed wide open for the crowd. The church was already filled with even more people trying to push their way through. I had one foot on the low step, waiting my turn with my mother when I heard the first howl.
It was not a normal wolf; I knew that in an instant. It turned my blood cold just to hear it, turning my skin into gooseflesh. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck and I looked over my shoulder in time to hear it again. It sounded wretched – full of anger and vicious hunger. It was an aching, tormented sound. And just as their howl was carried away by the window, one by one I could see their eyes. They were flashes of green and yellow, as when fire shines on the eyes of a beast in the darkness. It was impossible to tell how many there were.
The werewolves came tearing through the dark forest line that surrounded our small village. They covered the distance with long, terrifying leaps. I could hardly see them, but I could tell they were massive. They were taller and bigger than any man or beast I had encountered in my small world. My mother screamed. I felt like she tried to hold it back, but she was not able to. She stifled the sound with her hand and pushed me into the church, sending me stumbling through the crowd until I could finally press myself up against the wall. I felt the heat of bodies and I breathed in the smoke of burning candles. Church bells started ringing above my head, drowning out most other sounds except for the screams. They drowned out the solemn doles. I could hear flesh being ripped apart and somewhere, underneath the smoke, I could smell blood like copper coins in the collection plate.
A traveling man who had stopped for the night seeking food and shelter ended up staying for ten years. He chronicled the monstrosities and unearthed a few answers we were all seeking. Deep in the Carpathian Mountains, we were no strangers to stories and legends of monsters and other horrors. Our mountains cut the world in half and stood tall like the ridges of a spine on an emaciated beast. They invite legends and cautionary tales, but these creatures who were abominations of both man and wolf were unknown to us until the chronicler shed new light.
He spoke to us about a people know as the Dacians. They were simple people who tended the land, acting as its caretakers. They venerated Zalmoxe, who reigns over life and death, all that is before and after. They carried their weapon, the "Sica", to defend themselves when it was necessary. Unlike the empires with great armies surrounding them, they were not interested in conquest or trampling continents.
And then, there was the Daoi.
People in my village knew little of them in the beginning. They flew a standard bearing a wolf’s head. When they went into battle, they fought naked, clad only in thick pelts. Their weapon was the falx, a curved blade with a sharp edge prime for disemboweling. They referred to it as the wolf’s claw. They pricked their skin with needles that dripped ink and left permanent lines that covered them from neck to foot. The pictures on their skin were totems of the wolf and scenes depicting great victories. They were respected, highly, for they were as deadly as they were mystic. They kept so much to themselves that to pierce their ranks and join their cause, there was a series of trials that had to be passed. These trials were so brutal in their nature that they were as likely to kill you as you were to conquer them.
They stayed close together, even hunting in packs, having adapted their method of hunting from the wolf. They worshiped the wolf totem and that it was the source of all their magic. Their brutality and their mysticism were the wells drawn upon for their success, so it was rumored. My uncle said that you knew you were close to the wolf warriors’ battleground when you could smell blood in the air. There were stories of how it soaked the ground like heavy rain, so numerous were their kills.
It was the leader of these warriors who took it all too far, fueled by the blood and the stolen spirits of his fallen enemies. And when the chronicler told us the story, as I am telling you now, he talked about a profane ritual.
Such a ritual I had never heard of before. In the church of my small village, we never spoke of dark magic. The priest was an old, superstitious man who believed that even an utterance of its existence would pierce the walls of the holy place. The leader of the warriors had gathered them all together the evening before a battle and told them what would take place. He described it as a taking, as an invocation that would infuse them all with the wolf’s spirit and the power of their enemies tenfold. No one thought to say anything against him. They were loyal, and he had led them into victory time and again. What was there to doubt?
The Daoi wanted to be the strongest of all men. They considered themselves to be above any other because they had passed the torturous trials of the hunt, fang, and claw. Their leader wanted more. He was consumed by bloodlust and savagery – he wanted strength and power to conquer all his enemies. He knew that he would never be the best so long as there lived an equal opponent. He knew that he needed his enemy’s strength on top of his own to truly conquer.
There had been a battle that afternoon. The wolf warriors had conquered and swept the battle area clean. A few survivors had escaped with their lives, barely, and crawled into the underbrush of the dark forest. They would be picked off by animals, the leader supposed, or else die and be covered by the earth. Even back then, it was customary to allow the dead to be collected by their own. Even an enemy was given the final dignity of having their body burned and coins placed on their eyes for the afterlife. The wolf warriors did not give their enemies any final dignity in that one heated, bloody onslaught. They took the bodies and slung them over their own backs, sometimes two to a man, and they took them back to camp. The moon saw it all. After that night, they would call it the Wolf Moon.
They rested, but they did not eat. When night descended, they built a fire. The ground was frozen and there was more ice than newly fallen snow. The stark white color made the disturbed and bloody earth look like it had been ravaged by the battle. The leader sharpened his falx until it could slice down to the marrow. It was a terrifying weapon, for it was ferocious and bloodthirsty. It was wielded without mercy. Some say it even sang when its edge drank the blood of its enemies.
They paced around the fire and they threw in handfuls of resin. They tied together bundles of herbs and incense until the atmosphere was thick with smoke. They beat their chests and their legs, and they howled and snarled at the moon, acting like beasts. They prayed, they chanted, and they sang. They drank wine fermented from berries crushed by their own hands. Still, they did not eat.
The leader finally called for rest. With his falx and his long knife, he claimed the first prize. He chose, especially, a champion from amongst the bodies of his many enemies. He plunged his knife through the sternum and made a slit wide enough for his fingers. He sank his fingertips into the corpse’s torso and grabbed the ribs, spreading them apart with a nauseating crack. He plunged his hand inside and ripped out the champion’s heart, holding it aloft for the approving howls of his fellow warriors. He tore his teeth through the bloodied organ and the rest of his clan descended with frenzied hunger and evil desire corrupting their stomachs and wills. They wanted their enemies’ strength infused with their own. They wanted to possess more power than mere men ever could.
As they ate and defiled the corpses, treating them as nothing more than fresh meat to be consumed – they were oblivious, at first, to the moon. They were frenzied and ravenous. They were consumed by the taking of power, and some began to howl and snarl as if they could already feel their strength increasing tenfold. While they feasted, the sky had begun to swallow the perfect silver sphere. Darkness draped over its face like a veil, obscuring all its features.
As they feasted in the shadow of the moon, they were overcome. It started as a stab in the gut as if they had been run through by a long, wide knife. The pain spread, churning in their stomach, tugging on the walls of their stomachs as their hunger refused to abate. It only became greater. It consumed them, entirely. The warriors craved more. They did not stop with flesh but began cracking and splitting the bones, sucking out the marrow, chewing them down to splinters when there was nothing left to eat. They sank their teeth into organs, and they broke skulls to get into the brains. Every warrior among them was covered in blood and ice, writhing and consuming. Never had they felt such power – and never had they felt such unity, while at the same time each one felt more alone than ever before.
It was only the beginning. The wolf warriors were possessed by their hunger and their need. They craved more and more and could not seem to acquire it fast enough. They were no longer acting as defenders who killed only those who meant to cause harm. The warriors began killing everyone in sight, leaving only their own people untouched. They began to run on all fours, their backs and shoulders distorting. Their hands became more like claws, their nails getting thicker, their grasping fingers bent inward. Their mouths would hang open and they would bare their teeth, drooling as they closed in on their quarry. They began to abandon their weapons in favor of tearing a man apart with their mouths and bare hands. Their teeth fell out, growing back thicker and sharper, more like fangs. It was not long before they became nearly unrecognizable as men, yet they were not outwardly beasts.
Through the spring and summer months that was how they lived. And when the nights grew shorter and the air started to cool, they became emboldened, as if something were driving them towards a new phase of transformation.
It was the Hunter’s Moon, bright red as if heavy with blood, that put the seal on their fate.
When it unveiled itself that night, bathing the wolf warriors in a dark glow as red as wine, the agony of their final transformation began. Their spines felt like they were being pulled apart as they grew several metres. Claws burst from their nail beds, splitting the flesh down to the bone. Their skin fell off in sheets, peeling back to reveal thick, grey fur and then sliding off onto the ground. Each rip and tear in their skin felt like fire, or like someone was cutting it off with a dull knife. The rest of their teeth fell out, new ones giving the final push behind the roots. They howled in agony and clawed at their faces, pulling off more skin as their bones and joints cracked, snapped, and re-bonded in new shapes. Their bestial howls turned into wretched screams like tortured dogs. They whimpered and whined, slamming their bodies against trees and into the ground, seeking some reprieve from the awful gut-wrenching pain.
The leader had it worse than any one of them. And when he threw back his head and howled, it was a blood-curdling sound that could make your gut go rancid with fear.
From then on they were the Varcolacs, beasts that were bound to the moon for its curse. And when the moon became bloody, they became ravenous.
We have come to learn what to expect. Our saving grace is that for most of the year, they hunt alone. After that first Hunter’s Moon, they scattered, but every year since their leader has appeared to summon them. All those that remain gather and they hunt, consuming villages in entire black waves.
If only you were not here in this place, now. The Blood Moon – the Hunter’s Moon – is here again and the leader will bring his pack. Many centuries I have seen of this – oh, I know, how can I be so old as I claim? Another mystery to unravel, but not if we do not survive tonight. I have survived many evil hunts and seen more displaced body parts than blossoms in the spring. You have survived a few now, haven’t you? Maybe you will make it through one more. If you are fortunate as so many are not, you will see tomorrow’s mourning. You will be able to light a candle and pray over the dead in the wake of carnage. It is a tradition that has been upheld since the first evil hunt and may continue until the end of time.
Until then, we will do all we can to defend our home and the people within these walls. On your way here you must have noticed the sentries working in shifts to watch along the wall. You must have seen how high and thick our walls have been built – with spikes along the bottom to keep the hellish beasts at bay. We will beat them back with spears, arrows, and fire. We have flintlocks, some of us, and the noise and the flash if nothing else will give them pause. We cannot kill them, but we can hurt them.
We keep strings of bells by the door. The Varcolacs hate bells – so we ring them in churches. We tie them on ribbons, and we shake them in our fists. They will start banging pots and pans in the kitchen if you stick around long enough to hear. Children who cannot hold weapons will do that in the street, too, before they have to retreat into the chapel. Safety in numbers – only because the ones in the center are harder to pick off than the unlucky few who make up the outer edge.
We do all that we can. One day we may be so lucky as to see one of the Red Hoods. They are the only ones who have ever managed to truly take down one of these creatures
Well, enough of that. I will keep the fire going and I will stay in this tavern. You will have noticed I have been tuning my lute this entire time. Why? I am an old bard. My life is not worth more than the others who will go to the chapel. They will bar the doors here; they will ring bells and bang pots. I will play music, that is my part. Something to keep the people mollified, maybe something to keep them hope. If the old bard still plays, all cannot be lost.
But you, you need to go. As quickly as you can, and with as little regard for others as you can muster. Put your own survival always. That is my advice to you. Do not look at the moon – do not look towards the forest. Look towards nothing but the doors of the chapel and do not stop until you are past them.
You can hear it, now, can you not? The infernal howling? They are crying from hunger and bloodlust. They want to rend us apart, although I sometimes wonder if they even realize what they do any longer. Go while you still might, for they are closer than you think.